6 Important Usability Heuristics

You may find yourself asking, “What the heck are usability heuristics?” That’s a term rarely used outside engineering and mathematics. Even seasoned, experienced programmers often find themselves put off by it. So, before we dive into a discussion on the important usability heuristics, let’s demystify that term a bit.

What are Heuristics?

Heuristics are defined as the science of problem solving and abstract logic. It is often used to describe an experienced-based technique which helps in problem solving and discovery. Examples of heuristics include a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment or even common sense.

A search engine or piece of software that can learn from user input, or content input, and adapt its strategies to better perform and/or aid the user is considered a heuristic program.

So, in simple terms, a heuristic is basically an intuitive design used to solve problems.

Usability heuristics are the problem solving strategies for enabling usability techniques that overcome the hurdles, challenges or difficulties related to successful usability – in realistically predicted scenarios. Today, I’m going to talk about a few of these.

#1 – System Status Visibility

Users need to be able to see the actions and status of the entire system at all times. This, in software terms, translates as the ability to see the browser’s statistic output, title bar, progress bars and all other signs of activity. Otherwise, the user may feel the system is not working right.

#2 – Make Sure Worlds Don’t Collide

Not all computer users are computer scientists. You must relate to the context and understanding of a typical user’s world. This means, that designers must use terms and concepts that they are familiar with. Represent concepts with universal images and label your controls and elements with simple lexicon. Don’t be overly clinical or technical. For example a buttons might say “Ok” rather than “Confirm” or “Submit” in order to appear more user-friendly.

#3 – Be Consistent

I’ve talked about this before, and it’s extremely important. Be consistent with labels, images and layouts. Users shouldn’t have to deal with different words that mean the same thing. Buttons should not appear in random locations.  Text and images should not change in appearance or size.

#4 – Recognition Vs. Memory

Your design should reflect a logical order and flow that doesn’t require memorization of steps. The order should be intuitive and easy- even for novel users.

#5 – Error Prevention

It should go without saying that error prevention is incredibly important. Sometimes, users can do things out of order, or things can simply go wrong. It is the mark of a solid design that when a mistake occurs, the error can be easily corrected. Mistakes should be auto-corrected or provide a small message informing the users that something went wrong. No matter what, your system should not crash.

#6 – Minimalist Aesthetics

You should provide concise, relevant information in dialogues, labels and menus. Overly-artistic skins and visual themes serve only to slow things down, and reduce efficiency and ease of use. Keep the aesthetics of the interface minimalist and simple (this does not mean your site can’t be attractive).

The 6 Usability heuristics listed above are the fundamental ones, so if you have a limited time, just rest assured that the biggest ones have been addressed. I wanted to discuss more usability heuristics in this post (there are at least fifty key heuristics that are considered sacred), but I had to cut it off here. Stay tuned for the next set of usability heuristics in a future post.

Rachel Quinn